Surf su­per­sti­tion is alive and well in our cul­ture, and it can be the dif­fer­ence be­tween our best and worst ses­sions

Surfer - - Contents - By JUSTIN HOUSMAN

The Weird World of Surf Su­per­sti­tions

Some Ma­jor League Base­ball pitch­ers hop over the chalk base­line on their way back to the dugout at the end of an in­ning be­cause they know that if they don’t, some­thing ter­ri­ble will hap­pen. Step on that chalk line, and you’re prac­ti­cally guar­an­teed to give up a grand slam in the next in­ning. For them, it’s al­most a uni­ver­sal law. Yet other pitch­ers step on the line with­out a se­cond thought. They’re not wor­ried about some kind of karmic penalty from ac­ci­den­tally mess­ing up the base­line, be­cause they know that the real tal­is­manic pro­tec­tion lies in wear­ing the same un­washed un­der­shirt be­neath their jer­sey ev­ery sin­gle time they pitch. In their minds, if they for­get that thing at home be­fore an away game, they might as well start scan­ning the “help wanted” ads on Craigslist. Base­ball is filled with these lit­tle su­per­sti­tious rit­u­als.

I don’t know about you, but so is my surf life. Can you walk to the water car­ry­ing your leash in one hand, un­at­tached to the board you’re car­ry­ing with the other hand? I can’t. I don’t re­mem­ber when it started, but I have to at­tach my leash to my board be­fore I leave the car to head for the sand. If I don’t, I just know I’ll be surf­ing like a kook that day (more than nor­mal, I mean). I’m sure that at some point in the past I jogged to the water’s edge hold­ing an un­at­tached leash, then threaded it through the leash string, strapped it to my an­kle, pad­dled out into good waves and pro­ceeded to blow like 15 tubes in a row. I don’t re­mem­ber that ses­sion, but some­thing must have planted the seed of my su­per­sti­tion.

Oh, I’ve got oth­ers. If I lose my grip on the bar while wax­ing up and it falls on the ground, that bar is fin­ished for­ever—i pitch it right into the garbage. If I surf like a god one day, I’ll climb into the same cold, soggy suit the next ses­sion even though I have a fresh, dry wet­suit ready to go. I can’t ride a board with a tail pad on it; just know­ing it’s there does some­thing to my brain that makes even get­ting to my feet seem like a strug­gle. And these aren’t indicators of a broader case of OCD, ei­ther; su­per­sti­tious rit­u­als don’t fol­low me fur­ther than the park­ing lot at my lo­cal break.

I know I’m not alone in this. An in­for­mal sur­vey of fel­low surfers I re­cently con­ducted re­vealed that one good friend will rap his knuck­les on his stringer while sit­ting out the back dur­ing lulls when the surf is big. If he doesn’t, well, the con­se­quences are too ter­ri­fy­ing for him to imag­ine. An­other friend brings the same towel and board­shorts that he wore the first time he went to Indo on ev­ery surf trip he goes on now. He doesn’t use them, mind you, he just wants to have them along (hope­fully he’s washed them, be­cause his first Indo trip was in 1995). A few re­spon­dents re­ported that they refuse to surf be­fore their, um, morn­ing con­sti­tu­tional, but that’s prob­a­bly more of a com­fort thing than a su­per­sti­tion. But who knows? Su­per­sti­tions are weird.

So why do we have them any­way?

Well, for one thing, the ocean is vast and un­know­able and it doesn’t care about any of us. We can spend decades learn­ing as much as pos­si­ble about the bizarre be­hav­ior of the ocean in the lit­toral zone, but even then we’ll never be able to as­sert any sort of con­trol over what the ocean brings each of us when it comes to fun waves (Well, ex­cept for Tom Cur­ren, ob­vi­ously). A lit­tle pre-game rit­ual, a lit­tle bow­ing to su­per­sti­tion and a hint of mag­i­cal think­ing, how­ever, can pro­duce the il­lu­sion that at least some as­pect of the in­sanely ran­dom surf ex­pe­ri­ence is within our con­trol.

I can’t con­trol the va­garies of tide, swell di­rec­tion or sand­bar for­ma­tion. But I can con­trol the way I carry my leash to the beach, and I can con­trol the prox­im­ity of dirty wax to my surf­board. I can at­tempt, through repet­i­tive be­hav­iors, to take at least a lit­tle bit of the ran­dom­ness of surf­ing out of the equa­tion. And maybe, sub­con­sciously, I hope that might cause a chain re­ac­tion—that one cor­rect ac­tion will cause more pieces to fall into place. Maybe a peak will bend a lit­tle more my way, or that shoul­der hop­per will back off and let me glide in with­out me yelling like a ban­shee. What’s more, it seem­ingly costs me noth­ing to at least try. It takes only the tini­est bit of fo­cus for me to keep from fum­bling the bar of wax onto the ground like a doo­fus. It takes no ef­fort at all for my buddy to rap his knuck­les on his board. On their sur­face, these ac­tions seem like an easy way to hedge our bets in the hopes that we won’t surf like a dork or get pum­meled by rogue sets.

There is, of course, the twin, dark specters of con­fir­ma­tion bias and self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cies at work here, too. Ev­ery once in a while, I for­get about my leash rule and re­al­ize as I’m pad­dling out that I’ve al­ready blown it. And sure enough, kook­dom is the re­sult. And I have no doubt that my buddy with the magic Indo board­shorts wouldn’t make a sin­gle bar­rel if he went on an­other boat trip with­out his dis­gust­ing old trunks.

Now, deep down in­side, I know that this is all re­ally dumb. I fully re­al­ize that I’m per­fectly ca­pa­ble of drop­ping wax on the ground, pick­ing it up, con­tin­u­ing to wax my board and pad­dling out with­out blow­ing any waves. Just the same way Clay­ton Ker­shaw prob­a­bly doesn’t ac­tu­ally think he’s giv­ing up a grannie just be­cause he smudged the base­line (not that he ever would dare tempt fate).

But, my god, surf­ing, like base­ball, is ran­dom as hell and in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to do well. You can’t blame us for try­ing to cre­ate a sense of con­trol, even if it is just in our own minds.

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